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The two young men sitting opposite me in the train are medical students. When the train stops at a station and there is quiet for a couple of minutes, I hear one of them say something about an OSCE, confirming my guess, but actually I’d been sure 10 minutes earlier, before I’d heard either of them say a word.
What was it that gave the game away? Had one of them left a stethoscope carelessly dangling around his neck? Was there an anatomy textbook bulging from a satchel? A surgical mask peeping out of a breast pocket?
Nothing quite so obvious to the untrained eye – but something that nearly every medic would recognise. Both the boys, as they chatted, were absent-mindedly feeling the veins in their own arms. Clearly without any conscious intention, their fingers crept up and down, tracing out the lines of flow, probing for those points of bouncy squishiness where it would be a positive pleasure to slide in a cannula.
Learning medicine changes the way we inhabit our bodies. First there’s the consciousness of everything that could go wrong, with every part of us – sometimes amounting to that state of mercifully transient hypochondria called ‘medical student syndrome’. Sometimes there’s even a kind of revulsion, especially during the dissecting-room phase of training: does the inside of my eye really look like that?
On the other hand, though, there’s a heightened awareness of the sheer astonishing technical competence of the body – the exquisitely balanced leverage of bones and muscles; the thousands of perfectly-calibrated chemical reactions required to digest a sandwich. It’s a truism that a healthy body is a miracle we take for granted: more accurately, it’s a whole series of concurrent, interlocking and mutually-enhancing miracles.
The vein-feeling mannerism is less obvious in experienced doctors, once blood-taking starts to feel routine. I still catch myself doing it, though, walking my fingertips gently along the Houseman’s Friend, in the middle of thinking about something quite unrelated.
The heightened awareness, too, comes back to me at unexpected moments: a sudden realisation, while brushing my teeth or washing up or just walking along, of just how impressive are the feats of neuromuscular control and metabolism and sensory feedback needed for those simple tasks.
They come less often now, these moments – after all, I’m a qualified doctor, an old hand whose daily practice seldom requires thinking back to basic physiology. But I hope I will never lose them entirely. We all know that studying medicine entails certain sacrifices, but it brings some unexpected gifts in return.
By the Secret Doctor
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